It’s not very often that I get to see a 51 year-old woman verbally spar with a thirteen-year-old girl. Though this gaping age difference could have been comical under other circumstances, I was instead forcibly struck by the irony: it was the 13-year-old, not the 51-year-old, who was the wiser.
The 51-year-old woman was none other than the award-winning journalist Nancy Jo Sales, author of American Girls, a new exposé on how social media and easy porn access have contributed to the wide-scale sexual objectification of teenage girls.
In the writing of American Girls, Sales toured the country and interviewed 200 adolescent girls about their experiences with social media and sex on platforms such as Snapchat, Facebook, and Instagram. Each had, according to Sales, invariably reported a level of cyberbullying pertaining to physical appearance, and mostly in the vein of slutshaming. Sales went on to talk about how the goal of posting photos on social media sites is to obtain as many ‘likes’ as possible, and in this way, sex is a type of currency; a fail-safe approach to getting positive feedback on a photo is to post a provocative one.
She then discussed the horror stories she’d heard about from the girls she’d talked to. Many such stories centered on the aftermath of sending nudes. Sales talked at length about the many ways in which nudes can be screenshotted and sent around to others, resulting in the humiliation and torment of the girl. She even used some examples of girls who had attempted or succeeded in committing suicide after an event such as this. Although all of this might be true, her argument was oddly one-sided for someone who had spent 30 months among the teenage girls of this generation. I am positive that horrible things do often happen to girls who send nudes to horrible and amoral boys. And yet, I am not willing to believe that this is the only side of the story.
A massive part of nearly every teenage girl’s life in 2016 is the notion, no matter how slight, of feminism. Mainstream culture — to the horror of some, but to my great satisfaction — has incorporated feminism into everyday dialogue. It is now possible, and I’d even venture to say probable, that you can walk into a high school or a restaurant and hear terms like “objectification” being thrown around in conversation between girls. The wide acknowledgement of society’s disgusting degradation of the female body can only be a step forward.
That being said, feminism is a massive, complex, and ever-changing discussion. Every woman and girl has slightly different views, are informed by different experiences, and are entitled to their own beliefs. A woman born in the sixties, for instance, may have life experiences that are most unlike a girl born just over a decade ago. It is the joining of the thoughts, ideas, experiences, and values, however, that keeps feminism relevant and imperative. The willingness to celebrate every woman’s contribution to this discussion is a duty, I feel, that should not be treated lightly.
Sales, a self-professed expert in this field, shut down an intelligent, strong-willed 13-year-old girl with an opinion. She’d had the courage to stand up in front of a crowd of middle-aged men and women and declare, to them and to Sales herself, that sometimes taking nudes is, in itself, an act of empowerment. She talked about body positivity — how accepting and loving yourself for exactly who you are — can sometimes be the most empowering thing of all.
Sales didn’t even let her finish her statement. She cut in and condescendingly asked how old she was. When the 13-year-old replied, Sales patronized her further by saying that she needed to discuss such things with her parents. When she tried to rebut, Sales once again cut her off, not even allowing her to defend her argument.
It was shocking to me to see the immediate and utter dismissal of the girl’s words by a woman who had dedicated so much time to talking with girls about issues such as this. Not only was it irresponsible to set such a poor example in terms of open-mindedness and etiquette, but it also demonstrated a lack of understanding on Sales’s part of the truly multifaceted subject that is feminism and female sexuality.
Though third-wave feminism is foreign, perhaps, to some women who do not take part in social media or have relationships with younger generations of women and girls, the principles should not have been so inconceivable to Sales. Her point about how pornography’s violent, extreme, and unrealistic nature contributes to sexual violence and abuse towards women was correct, as was her observation that women are conditioned to seek male approval and desire. Her downfall was her inability to acknowledge the fact that teenage girls are often just as aware of this as she is, and are thus able to turn the male gaze on itself; she had somehow missed the fact that girls and women have begun to reclaim their bodies, and are slowly but surely refusing to let their self worth be dictated by a man’s conception of their physical appearance.
Teenage girls are smarter and savvier than Sales will ever know. They find empowerment through self love and acceptance, and through building each other up. It was frankly unforgivable that she could betray her commitment to building up teenage girls by tearing down and dismissing the opinion of a 13-year-old. Perhaps if she’d listened, she would’ve learned a thing or two.
Eliza Siegel, our writer, is 19 years old.